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11 Aug, Thursday
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Montreal Families

The Big Apple – A Treat For Kids

New York City may not seem like an immediate first choice for family travel. The city is crowded, expensive and can be difficult to navigate with a stroller or dawdling preschooler. But then there are also the Broadway shows (kids love musicals), Central Park Zoo and some of the best museums in the world.

And although guidebooks will suggest the more obvious attractions like elevator trips up the Empire State Building and visits to the Statue of Liberty, there are plenty of other family activities that don’t draw huge crowds or cost too much money.

Since we have several family members who live in and around New York City, we’ve had plenty of reason to visit in the past eight years. Along the way, we’ve learned a few tricks to help make the whole experience memorable. Here are some of our favourite things to do when in New York City:

Fishing in Harlem Meer
(a large body of water stretching 11 acres)
At the very northeast corner of Central Park, by the corner of 5th Ave., you can get free fishing poles (with unbarbed hooks) and a container of sweet corn to try and catch the fish in Harlem Meer from April to October. While you’re there, visit the free natural history exhibits in the Great Hall at the Dana Discovery Centre, and try out one of the nature classes for kids. One of the park’s many wonderful playgrounds is situated right here, and there are shops across the street to get snacks for an impromptu picnic.

Belvedere Castle
Home of the Henry Luce Nature Observatory, Belvedere Castle (mid-park, around 79th Ave.) offers visitors a backpack filled with a guide to birds in the area, binoculars, maps and sketching materials for bird watching. Families can explore the hands-on nature exhibits with telescopes and microscopes available for exploration. Upstairs, a plywood tree is filled with paper mache models of various birds, whose songs can be heard at the push of a button. Nature tours for kids run frequently. Turtle Pond is below the castle, and is home to many turtles, fish, frogs and waterfowl. The nearby Conservatory Water is very popular for people with model boats, which can also be rented by the hour at the Kerbs Boat House. At the north end of the pond is the famous Alice in Wonderland sculpture, in which the bronze Alice presides over an eternal tea party, to the delight of kids who love to clamber all over her and her polished companions.

Central ParkCentral Park
Families should check out the many other free or inexpensive things to do in Central Park away from the hordes of tourists at the zoo and carousel. The Lasker Pool and Rink offers free swimming in summer and free skating in winter, for example, and the Museum of the City of New York offers a lovely doll house collection right across the street from the beautiful Conservatory Garden. The Wollman Rink offers inexpensive ice skating in winter and in-line skating in summer at the south end of the park. Skate rental is available. Check out an interactive, informative map of the park at www.centralpark2000.com/products/ map/map_home.html.

Rickshaw rides
The truly adventurous should consider a rickshaw ride around Times Square, which can accommodate one adult and two kids, or two adults and one kid. It costs about $20US but will be a memorable experience. The incredibly fit young men and women who pull these things around (in decent weather) tend to be really friendly, with a sharp sense of humour and lots of great tips for things to see and do. You’ll need to put your arm out and hail them in Times Square.

Lions at the library
Children who watch the PBS Kids show In Between the Lions will appreciate seeing these two friendly and majestic stone beasts, named Patience and Fortitude. At the same time, check out the wonderful Central Children’s Room on the second floor of the Donnell Library Centre, 20 West 53rd Street (between 5th and 6th Avenues). The original Winnie the Pooh toys, Mary Poppins’s umbrella, and other unique items are on permanent display, and special exhibitions — often featuring original art by children’s book illustrators — are scheduled regularly. They have an active program schedule for kids, with films, story hours and guest appearances by children’s book authors and illustrators.

Ride a Ferris wheel
The full-size Ferris wheel inside the Toys R Us in Times Square is worth a visit and the $3 per person ticket. Each of the cars is modelled on a famous toy, such as Barbie, Mr. Potato Head and Hot Rod cars. We treat the toy store like a museum, where we can look at the wonderful displays without buying anything, such as the massive, bellowing animatronic T-Rex, or the life-sized, two-floor Barbie house. To appease the kids, who would like us to purchase one of everything in the store, we take them to the Candy Land section on the third floor, where each child can choose a few sweets from the massive bulk bins to put in their own plastic bag.

Free boat rides
Kids get to ride free on the Lil Toot, a coast guard certified vessel that runs hourly from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. from the North cove in the Financial District, June through August. There are great views of the city and the Statue of Liberty on the 45-minute trip. It costs $5 for adults, and there is a maximum of four kids per adult. Make a reservation as far in advance as possible, by emailing dockmaster@myc.org or calling (212) 786-3323.

Street fairs and shows
New York City is jam-packed with all sorts of things going on all over the city, from the Greenmarkets (or farmer’s markets) to Puerto Rican parades or art fairs on Columbus Avenue. Because these change on a regular basis, it can be confusing for visitors to know what’s happening at certain times of the year. Before you go, sign up for the weekly newsletter at www.gocitykids.com (specify New York). You can search by kids’ ages and type of activity. Also, be sure to check out Time Out New York Kids (http://www.tonykids.com/), and print out their Page of Picks with the upcoming week’s kid-friendly activities.

We try to discover something new on every visit, whether it’s new foods, neighbourhoods or tiny museums. With a little advance preparation, an open mind and a sense of adventure, your family will also have great memories of the Big Apple to savour for years to come.

Getting around in NYC with kids
cab in new york cityFirst, get rid of your car. Traffic, one-way streets and crazy drivers make getting around hair-raising for those unfamiliar with the city streets. Find a secure, supervised parking lot, and pay for the day. On-street parking is unreliable, and the first hour at a lot is what costs the most, so you are better finding a decent lot (the ones uptown are less expensive) and taking the subway, cabs or walking.

The subway system is full of stairs and escalators, and not stroller friendly. Either consider using a backpack carrier for your little ones, or get a lightweight umbrella stroller. Although it’s somewhat less aesthetically appealing than Montreal’s metro system, the New York subway is actually pretty fast, efficient and safe. A one-day “metrocard” is cost efficient if you are planning several jaunts around town.

For short excursions, nothing beats a New York cab. With three or more people, your trip may be less expensive than taking the subway. However, it can be difficult to find one at rush hour, shift changes or when the weather is bad. Also, unless you carry a car seat, your kids will ride with nothing more than a seatbelt for protection, which makes many parents uncomfortable.

Consider the bus system for trips up and down some of the major streets. That way you get to take in some of the scenery along the way.

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